I am the owner of Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, a labor of love that was born in my home 28 years ago as I struggled to build community as a single immigrant mother. Today, my heart sinks as I drive through our downtown here in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, seeing business after business closed due the hardship of COVID19. I’m surprised that any businesses have survived, including ours.
Before Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe launched as a community-funded brick-and-mortar shop in 2010, I, along with food justice activists, landless farmers, organizers of all kinds, and my kids, ran an underground community kitchen in my house, with a commitment to locally sourced ingredients, culturally vibrant and healthy food, and a promise to turn no one away for lack of money. For decades, our space has been a movement hub where local people planned anti-war protests and Take Back The Night marches, where we stayed up late to make vats of hot chai and hot cacao to send to Washington, DC during the 2000 protests against the World Bank and WTO, where tearful neighbors straggled in for hugs the morning after the November 2016 election, and where the Poor People’s Campaign first met.
Vimala’s also practices justice on the inside, where we guarantee living wages and paid sick leave to our workers, and vigorously maintain and advocate for restaurant workers’ rights. We also created the nonprofit Curryblossom Foundation in order to expand our capacity to support our larger vision of food as a human right.
When North Carolina’s COVID-19 shelter-in-place order began, our community commitment grew. I was so touched when a local organization picked me as one of the people on their list of essential community leaders they would check on and consult with each week. It was from these check-in’s that we identified the community needs we could best fill, such as taking a contract to provide hundreds of meals to our African refugee community, where so many families are living with nothing at all. For these families we made sure to offer food that honored their culture, made with familiar ingredients such as fufu flour, palm oil, and dried fish. We also provided food to our mostly Black elderly neighbors; even though the budget wasn’t enough to cover the food our elders needed and deserved, we showed up for them anyway, making sure that the food on their plate was something that a Southern family would look at and not have to ask, “What is that?” For our elders we made delicious meals like chicken pot pies, fish cakes, meatloaf, and home made bread. As one of the elders told me, “This is the first real food we’ve eaten since COVID-19. Everyone here cried.”
On Thursday, July 23, 2020, we arrived early to begin work at our restaurant in Chapel Hill and discovered a pile of ashes under the gas meter and a vivid trail of burnt gas or oil out to the street. Thankfully, no one was hurt and little significant damage was accomplished. There is an investigation underway into whether this was a planned act targeting Curryblossom.
If the intent was to set a fire, we can’t claim to know the message our unfriendly visitors were trying to send. That said, it is possible that we are being targeted in response to our outspoken progressive values, our support for immigrants and refugees, or the Black Lives Matter sign prominently displayed in our window. Supporters who have been with Curryblossom for the long journey know that in the past the restaurant has been targeted with hate mail, racist vandalism, and threats during periods of white supremacist upsurge, emboldened by the highest offices of this nation.
Restaurants like ours are doing essential services. We need support. Vimala’s was fortunate to receive a paycheck protection loan, but those funds, designated only for payroll, utilities, and rent, are now done. We are a small business that has stayed open for our community at all costs. With nothing to fall back on, we may be forced to close.
As elected officials and foundations and donors strategize on how to keep our communities strong and resilient, I ask that you don’t forget us, the small businesses that have meant economic survival for people like me and our families, that were born of and in community, and that have been there, through thick and thin, nourishing bodies and hearts, and building interdependent power.
Photo credit: Anjali Rajendran